Life. Nice segue. I'm trying to tell you something about my life / Maybe give me insight between black and white.
During that angst-ridden era of flannels, Camels, and Reality Bites, I found myself barely hanging on to some semblance of spirituality. This guy Jesus really existed a long time ago, but we couldn't be much surer about anything else. It took a few years after my "conversion experience" to get to this place, but it had been moving in that direction since the very night I wept at the end of the aisle. (The reason being, overemphasis on the experience of conversion by nature sets people up for failure—unless you're on the road to Damascus, I suppose.)
If I could put my finger on one particular moment I began noticeably to unravel, it was after saturating myself with the Renaissance humanists. Or, rather, it was after misconstruing the entire movement that we now call Christian humanism. In short, my puerile understanding and attempt to put into practice the ideals of this movement quickly devolved: the Christian part fell by the wayside and I was left with the humanist part alone. But the wages of humanism is death. (In a moment of perfect confluence, "Imagine" just came on the radio as I write this.)
Literature and music. Both play a key role in my spiritual development, which gets me to the point of this post.
During my early-to-mid 20s, the liner notes to Moby's Everything Is Wrong (Mute, 1995) became my manifesto. It had all the right mix of disdain for the Christian Right, support for environmentalist causes, social justice (for the poor and hungry), universalism, and syndicalism. This was the kind of stuff that preached to me. I rarely rolled out of bed on the Lord's Day. Music and literature, especially that which employed biblical allusions, remained my primary source of inspiration and discipleship.
Enter the Indigo Girls. While I haven't kept up with them that much since, nor did I rush out to buy everything they ever produced at the time, one particular album remained my daily bread in the mid 90s: the self-titled Indigo Girls (Epic Records, 1989).
Each track, in some way or another, seemed to describe my journey: "Secure Yourself"—choose your identity wisely, this world is dark, and the journey is long; "Kid Fears"—the juxtaposition of normal childhood fears versus those tragedies we sometimes hear about on the news; "Prince of Darkness"—a testament to family, friends and support systems in the face of diabolical forces that threaten to pull you under; "Blood and Fire"—all about the obsessive-compulsive, and thus dangerous, kind of love; "Tried to Be True"—faithfulness and compromise in the little choices you make everyday; "Love's Recovery"—the redemptive power of selfless love; "Land of Canaan"—the shame and pain and loneliness of unrequited love; "Center Stage"—through several allusions to historic nursery rhymes, we are given the exhortation to make our actions sure and to accept the consequences; and "History of Us"—a double entendre: make certain your story tells the tale of one who was present in every moment, who entered into the often pain-filled messiness of other's lives, who answered the call of the living God, before time makes history of you.
How did they do it? How did they sound so naturally a part of my world? Come to find out later that Amy Ray graduated Emory with a degree in English and religion, and Emily Saliers, who also went to Emory, is the daughter of Don Saliers, professor emeritus of theology and worship at Candler School.
My favorite was the album's opening song, "Closer to Fine" (read the lyrics). It struck all the right chords. It also became a favorite cover for the folk band I started (as a ploy to get my now wife to fall in love with me). In the first line (quoted in the second paragraph above), the singer sets the tone: seeing the world in blacks and whites alone avoids the issue. She needs help to see all the shades of gray (in order to realize that the answer lies in the seeking), and coming to grips with this leads "me [to] take my life less seriously" because "it's only life after all." In other words, relax. You're not expected to find all the answers.
Analyzing every lyric from this tune would turn this already long blog post into an unbearably long one. But at its core, this song sings of gaining stability through the awareness of instability—becoming "closer to fine"—in the face of the vertigo-like symptoms that result from the apparent relativity and confusion of life that appears in response to the search for something definitive, something black and white, from one source. Add to this the realization that that search is couched in an everyday life clearly dependent on its social construction, and seeking "solace in a bottle or possibly a friend" sounds about right.
These days, I've learned to be more critical—less gullible—when listening or reading. And I've certainly learned to cling to God's Word (enfleshed and spoken/written/tasted in the bread and wine and passed through in the waters of baptism) and thus seek more from this "source for some definitive." Nevertheless, I'm still a recovering progressive; I'm still a humanist ever-seeking for the Christian to gain ground. I'm still walking that "crooked line."